Disorienting Dilemmas

We need your help.

Jack Mezirow, in his 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, introduced the idea of transformational learning to the world. Back then, Jack told us that transformational learning was a process that renews our frames of reference. "Frames of reference" was the term Jack used to describe "the assumptions through which we, as individuals, understand our personal experiences." Essentially, they're what define and shape our individual perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. They're what determine what we think, feel, and do.

In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow suggested that, if we were conscious enough, personal transformations would become expansive learning processes. With the right knowledge, tools, and skill sets in hand, we would use our conscious learning processes to decisively move ourselves through several developmental steps. Following this path, he said, would help us foster the new frames of reference we needed to learn if we were going to lead healthier, more effective, fulfilling lives.

There was just one catch. No matter what, Mezirow said, the transformational learning processes he was describing could begin only after we first experienced what he called "disorienting dilemmas." In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow told us a disorienting dilemma was an "unexpected incident" that unavoidably showed the person involved that they weren't perceiving and understanding reality in accurate or useful enough ways.

In the years since Mezirow published his original book, our understanding of transformational learning has been expanded substantially. Currently, Amazon.com advertises more than 200 books on Transformative Learning. Google lists more than three dozen pages referencing this subject.

Yet today, we at TLO can find only one book (i.e., The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, by Marcia Reynolds) that actually defines a disorienting dilemma; describes what it feels like for the person caught in the midst of the experience; and provides concrete exercises, interventions, and/or case studies that show how to support and encourage people who are just beginning to realize they're trapped in the middle of a disorienting dilemma.

Look at this YouTube video:


This past year, we've searched the Internet for every bit of information we can find on disorienting dilemmas -- anything more exhaustive and instructive than the preliminary ideas Marcia Reynolds is offering. For example, we've researched related concepts like "disconfirming experiences," "cognitive dissonance," and "socio-emotional traumas" for what the research in these areas might reveal. But, in terms of useful descriptions, prescriptions, directions, recipes, and/or advice on how to initiate, support, and encourage a person to move into and through any of these destabilizing personal experiences, we've come up with a big, fat zero.

That's why here, in this blog, we're asking for your help. Our own transformational learning experiences convince us that disorienting dilemmas, in fact, are the vital catalyst that Mezirow said they were. But, we're still short on the how part of this equation. If you have insights and ideas about how to initiate, encourage, and support someone who's encountering his or her own disorienting dilemma, disconfirming experience, or socio-emotional trauma, please share with us. We're committed to exchanging ideas and insights wth you in ways that benefit us all.